Academic journal article Journal of Geoscience Education

Using Google Earth and Satellite Imagery to Foster Place-Based Teaching in an Introductory Physical Geology Course

Academic journal article Journal of Geoscience Education

Using Google Earth and Satellite Imagery to Foster Place-Based Teaching in an Introductory Physical Geology Course

Article excerpt


Students in an introductory physical geology course often have difficulty making connections between basic course topics and assembling key concepts (beyond textbook examples) to interpret how geologic processes shape the characteristics of the local and regional natural environment. As an approach to address these issues, we designed and implemented a semester-long place-based group project, which used satellite imagery and Google Earth as a means to improve both students' conceptual knowledge of geological concepts and their understanding of geological processes. The project provided the underlying framework for both lecture and laboratory activities and was designed to reiterate and strengthen the connections across topics. Findings suggest that when given the opportunity and tools to develop a sense of place in the local and regional environment, students improve their conceptual knowledge and ability to apply critical thinking skills. Consequently, student learning becomes more meaningful and relevant to their everyday experiences.

© 2012 National Association of Geoscience Teachers. [DOI: 10.5408/10-203.1]

Key words: critical thinking, Google Earth, place-based, satellite imagery, semester-long project, undergraduate education


Instructional strategies and auricular materials purposefully designed to bridge the gap between students' classroom learning and everyday experiences can help make their learning relevant. In 2004, Etkina and Mestre reported that, especially for nonscience majors, the lack of connections between what students learn in the classroom and in their everyday experiences often contribute to their lack of motivation. Connecting learning to personal experience, either as a result of direct hands-on activities or indirectly through the description of familiar events, can be a powerful strategy for motivating and engaging students in meaningful learning (Schell and Black, 1997; Powers, 2004; Ardoin, 2006; McConnell et al., 2006).

Similar to what was observed by McConnell et al. (2006), we found in our teaching experiences that students often had difficulty applying their knowledge of concepts learned in class to interpret or ascribe geologic processes within the local, regional, or global landscape. Discussions resulting from our weekly strategizing meetings suggested two emerging themes. First, students seemed to compartmentalize geologic concepts and processes as isolated bits of information (Raia, 2005). As a result, they often lacked a clear understanding of how key concepts connected across topics or provided evidence to support "big picture ideas" such as plate tectonics. Second, students were typically more successful and confident in their ability to answer questions that relied on the memorization of facts than they were with questions that required critical thinking or reasoning from evidence to support their claims (Ball et al., 2001; Krathwohl, 2002; Mayer, 2002; McConnell et al., 2003).

In an effort to address these concerns in ways that would help foster relevance to student learning, characteristics of place-based education were incorporated into laboratory activities, instructional strategies, and student assessment. Instrumental in our efforts was the design and implementation of a semester-long group project utilizing Google Earth and satellite imagery. The use of technology served as a valuable teaching tool and resource through which students could build a sense of place in the local and regional landscape of northern California. The term "sense of place" expresses the connections between people and places (Williams and Stewart, 1998; Lim and Calabrese Barton, 2006; Semken, 2008). A fundamental characteristic that establishes the foundation of place-based education, according to Woodhouse and Knapp (2000), "emerges from the particular attributes of a place. The content is specific to the geography, ecology, sociology, politics, and other dynamics of that place. …

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